Pinellas County tourism chief David Downing was at one of the world's largest tourism conferences in Germany last month. At nearly every turn, foreign tour operators brought up the same topic with him — and it wasn't which of the area's famous beaches was the best.
It was Donald Trump.
Some tourism officials in Florida and across the nation are fretting that a Trump presidency — and even the rhetoric coming from Trump on the campaign trail — could put a dent in tourism that is breaking records all over the nation, including here in the Tampa Bay area.
"There is a lot affecting the tourism market overseas right now, from the refugee crisis, to political instability in the southern Mediterranean, to the Zika virus, to the strength of the dollar in America. But most were concerned about the Trump effect on travel," said Downing, executive director of Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater.
Charter tours and travel booking companies say some tourists from Europe and Latin America — two big markets for Florida and Tampa Bay — have said they will vacation elsewhere if Trump is elected because they loathe his anti-immigrant policies and think he stokes an atmosphere of racial profiling and distrust of foreigners.
The topic of Trump clipping tourism received perhaps its most public airing at a U.S. Travel Association board meeting in March, where Travel Weekly editor-in-chief Arnie Weissmann said that Trump could possibly derail the momentum U.S. tourism has enjoyed in recent years.
"The U.S. travel industry has spent millions between different associations, like Brand USA, to position the U.S. as a very welcoming destination," Weissmann said. "Mr. Trump would work against that."
During President Barack Obama's tenure, Brand USA, an agency aimed at promoting international travel to the United States, launched in 2010 with the goal of attracting 100 million international tourists and $250 billion from them by 2021. Tourism boosters benefited from Obama's effort to jump-start a 10-year visa program between the United States and China in 2014. Before that, only one-year visas were available.
Trump has been clear about his hard stance on immigration. His policies as a potential president call for a wall between the United States and Mexico, ending birthright citizenship and creating tougher penalties for overstaying a visa.
Some tourism officials think Trump wouldn't affect tourism much at all. Visit Florida CEO Will Seccombe said there are no plans to shift the way the agency markets Florida as a destination to other countries.
"Last year we had visitors come to Florida from 190 different countries, and we expect that to keep growing," he said. "I think that will carry forward regardless of the election, and we predict that 2017 will be another banner year for us."
Spokespeople from Trump's campaign did not return requests for comment.
But Weissmann worries that Trump could undo a lot of the initiatives that have benefited the tourism industry.
"After 9/11, America adopted a fortress mentality, and it was a very unwelcoming experience to visitors. That hurt tourism and created a lot of lost years," he said.
He said the industry "has turned around significantly, but it's all at risk if the messaging by foreign media continues to be that Trump is working against that."
Iris Köpke, a journalist in Germany, said that Germans are very interested in what's happening in American politics. The U.S. presidential election is covered in major newspapers and television news channels every day.
"The fact that Donald Trump is being quite successful surprises many people here and also sparks interest in the election, but mostly in a negative way," said Köpke, who is the editor-in-chief of the German travel trade magazine Luxusinsider. "I vividly remember people saying that they won't travel to the U.S. as long as George W. Bush is president because they didn't like his attitude. That totally disappeared with Obama, who is rather popular in Germany compared to Bush. I think a president called Trump might bring out those old resentments once again."
Rachel Mayes came to the United States for the first time last summer. Born, raised and still living in Reading, England, she spent three months in the states as a counselor at a summer camp in Maine and explored New York City and the Northeast afterward. Mayes, 22, is already looking forward to a return trip this summer, but worries that it may be her last to the U.S. if Trump is elected.
"It's disheartening to think that if a certain candidate won the election, I might not be able to holiday with some of my closest friends because of their religion," she said.
She isn't alone.
Guillermo Holsman of Buenos Aires doesn't think a Trump victory will deter him from visiting the United States. But he worries about Trump policies that could make it difficult for him to get here.
Any change that Trump makes to "tariffs, taxes, investments, visas, participation in international organizations, treaties of all kind, from environmental issues to commerce and technology transfers will have tremendous impact abroad," said Holsman, 26. "If a candidate says he will stop or drastically alter any of the many things the U.S. does now, that will somehow affect the world."
Muhannad Alabbassi, from the small island of Bahrain in the Persian Gulf in the Middle East, worries that if Trump is elected, it will affect his plans to study in the United States.
"After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, my family did cancel their plans to work and possibly live in the U.S. mainly due to concerns over hate crimes and racial profiling," said Alabbassi, 24. "Now they are reluctant about going to North America and Europe for the same reason, this time because of ISIL and the migrant crisis. There's no doubt their reaction would be the same if Donald Trump gets elected and starts an open discrimination campaign against Muslims."
Contact Justine Griffin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.